Week 30: Commuter, by P.J.Kavanagh

Commuter

Deaf and dumb lovers in a misty dawn
On an open railway platform in the Dordogne
Watched each other’s hands and faces,
Making shapes with their fingers, tapping their palms,
Then stopped and smiled and threw themselves
Open-mouthed into each other’s arms

While the rest of us waited, standing beside our cases.
When it arrived she left him and climbed on the train
Her face like dawn because of their conversation.
Then she stepped down, grabbed his neck in the crook of her arm,
Gave him the bones of her head, the bones of her body violently.
Then climbed on again alone. Her face hardened
In seconds as we moved away from her island.
Tight-lipped she looked around for a seat on the sea.

P.J.Kavanagh

A complex, beautifully observed poem: there is reticent compassion here but more than that an almost envious acknowledgment of an unshared intimacy.

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Week 29: To The Etruscan Poets, by Richard Wilbur

To The Etruscan Poets

Dream fluently, still brothers, who when young
Took with your mothers’ milk the mother tongue,

In which pure matrix, joining world and mind,
You strove to leave some line of verse behind

Like a fresh track across a field of snow,
Not reckoning that all could melt and go.

Richard Wilbur

Some poets can say more in six lines than others manage in six hundred…

Week 28: The Coiner, by Rudyard Kipling

The Coiner

(Circa 1611)

Against the Bermudas we foundered, whereby
This Master, that Swabber, yon Bo’sun and I
(Our pinnace and crew being drowned in the main)
Must beg for our bread through old England again.

For a bite and a sup, and a bed of clean straw,
We’ll tell you such marvels as man never saw,
On a Magical Island which no one did spy
Save this Master, that Swabber, yon Bo’sun and I.

Seven months among Mermaids and Devils and Sprites,
And Voices that howl in the cedars o’ nights,
With further enchantments we underwent there.
Good Sirs, ’tis a tale to draw guts from a bear!

’Twixt Dover and Southwark it paid us our way,
Where we found some poor players were labouring a play;
And, willing to search what such business might be,
We entered the yard, both to hear and to see.

One hailed us for seamen and courteous-ly
Did guide us apart to a tavern near by
Where we told him our tale (as to many of late)
And he gave us good cheer, so we gave him good weight.

Mulled sack and strong waters on bellies well-lined
With beef and black pudding do strengthen the mind;
And seeing him greedy for marvels, at last
From plain salted truth to flat leasing we passed.

But he, when on midnight our reckoning he paid,
Says, ‘Never match coins with a Coiner by trade,
Or he’ll turn your lead pieces to metal so rare
As shall fill him this globe, and leave something to spare…’

We slept where they laid us, and when we awoke
’Was a crown or five shilling in every man’s poke.
We bit them and rang them, and, finding them good,
We drank to that Coiner as honest men should!

Rudyard Kipling

I don’t go much for the more strident side of Kipling, but I do like his ventures down the byways of English history, such as this idiosyncratic take on the possible genesis of ‘The Tempest’.

Week 27: Epitaph for Anton Schmidt, by Thom Gunn

Epitaph for Anton Schmidt

The Schmidts obeyed, and marched on Poland,
And there an Anton Schmidt, Feldwebel,
Performed uncommon things, not safe,
Nor glamorous, nor profitable.

Was the expression on his face
‘Reposeful and humane good nature’,
Or did he look like any Schmidt
Of slow and undisclosing feature?

I know he had unusual eyes
Whose powers no orders might determine,
Not to mistake the men he saw,
As others did, for gods or vermin.

For five months, till his execution,
Aware that action has its dangers,
He helped the Jews to get away,
– Another race at that, and strangers.

He never did mistake for bondage
The military job, the chances,
The limits; he did not submit
To the blackmail of his circumstance.

I see him in the Polish snow,
His muddy wrappings small protection,
Breathing the cold air of his freedom
And treading a distinct direction.

Thom Gunn

I don’t think this fine poem needs any comment from me.